What is a physics degree?

Famed scientists Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Stephen Hawking studied physics. But what is a physics degree like, and should you pursue one?
Written by Genevieve Carlton, Contributor

Physics examines matter, energy, and force. Students explore forces like gravity and magnetism to understand how objects act and react through time and space. Physics programs build mathematical and research skills through lectures, laboratory assignments, and projects. 

With the best bachelor's degrees in physics, graduates work in laboratories, classrooms, industrial sites, and diverse other settings. A physics degree can lead to engineering, technology, research science, and education opportunities. 

But should you earn a physics degree? And how hard is physics? Our guide walks through everything you need to know about physics degrees.

What skills do physics programs teach students?

During a physics degree, learners approach complex problems, analyze data, and apply theoretical knowledge. The degree also builds solid research abilities and people skills like communication.

Key hard skills in a physics degree:

  • Advanced mathematics
  • Data analysis
  • Quantitative research
  • Mathematical modeling

Key soft skills in a physics degree:

  • Written communication
  • Logical reasoning
  • Problem-solving
  • Organizational 

These skills benefit physics majors in diverse fields including engineering, business, technology, and research.

What kinds of physics degrees are there?

Colleges offer physics degrees at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Each degree prepares learners for different career paths. 

Many careers in the sciences require at least a bachelor's degree. Physicists and research scientists often need a graduate degree. 

This section introduces each physics degree and its associated career opportunities.

Certificate program in physics

A certificate in physics introduces learners to college-level math and physics classes. Students take foundational courses emphasizing problem-solving, critical thinking, and analysis. Unlike degree-granting programs, certificates do not include general education courses. Instead, the curriculum focuses on physics, mechanics, calculus, and other core topics.

Completing a certificate requires less time than a degree. Most certificate programs take a year or less. After completing the certificate, graduates can transfer into a degree-granting program. A certificate may also lead to opportunities as a laboratory technician or assistant. 

Associate degree in physics

An associate degree in physics includes mathematics, natural science, and physics courses. Physics courses include wave mechanics, calculus, and optics. These classes build analytical and problem-solving skills.

Students also complete general education courses that strengthen communication and critical thinking.

Earning an associate degree typically takes two years for full-time students. After completing the degree, graduates may transfer into a bachelor's program. Transfer students with an associate degree can often finish a physics bachelor's in two years. 

The degree can lead to biomedical technician, laboratory technician, or other support roles.

Bachelor's degree in physics

A bachelor's degree in physics strengthens mathematical and analytical abilities. Majors study statistical mechanics, quantum physics, and materials science. 

The degree also incorporates advanced math classes, including calculus. Learners complete general education requirements in biology, chemistry, and the social sciences.

Finishing a bachelor's degree generally takes four years for full-time students. Graduates pursue careers in research, data analytics, engineering, and education. Some physics majors work as materials scientists, data analysts, physics teachers, and lab technologists. 

The degree also prepares learners for graduate-level study in physics or another field.

Bachelor of arts vs. bachelor of science in physics

Many colleges offer both a BA and BS in physics. Both degrees offer similar coursework within the major, but the general education requirements vary. 

For example, a BA typically requires one year of foreign language and additional humanities and social science classes. A BS often includes more math and natural science coursework. 

Either option takes around four years and leads to similar career paths. However, some physics employers and graduate programs may prefer candidates with a BS. 

Master's degree in physics

A master's degree in physics offers advanced training in the field. Graduate students take quantum physics, electromagnetic theory, and research methods courses. Many programs let learners customize their degree through a specialization or electives. For example, master's students may specialize in optics, physics education, or mathematical modeling. 

Learners often finish the degree with a master's thesis or capstone project.

Earning a master's degree generally takes two years. With a master's in physics, professionals work as research scientists, materials engineers, and physics teachers. Some employers hire physicists with a master's degree.

Doctoral degree in physics

A doctorate is the physics field's highest degree. Doctoral students complete coursework, pass comprehensive exams, and conduct dissertation research. 

Learners specialize in a subfield like electromagnetic theory, particle physics, or applied physics. They conduct research and may publish articles in academic journals.

Most doctoral programs last at least five years. With a doctorate, graduates qualify for research and academic positions. For instance, graduates may work as physics professors or as physicists. Many career paths include a two- to three-year postdoctoral research placement.

Accreditation for physics programs

Prospective physics students should always choose an accredited college or university. Accredited institutions meet high standards for academic excellence. 

Independent accrediting agencies evaluate schools based on their degree requirements, academic mission, faculty qualifications, and student learning outcomes. Applicants should look for regionally accredited institutions when choosing a physics program.

How hard is a physics degree?

What is a physics degree like in terms of difficulty? Is it as hard as its reputation suggests?

The field requires strong mathematical skills and an ability to digest complex ideas and problems. As a theory-heavy branch of science, physics can challenge students. While physics can be difficult, specific strengths help learners succeed. 

Physics majors benefit from problem-solving and a dedication to working through complex topics. They must be willing to seek support when necessary. Reaching out to professors, advisors, and classmates helps physics students master challenging material.

Students without a background in physics may benefit from taking introductory biology, chemistry, and physics classes at the college level.

In conclusion

Earning a physics degree prepares graduates for careers in diverse fields like scientific research, education, engineering, and technology. The degree also builds valuable analytical and critical thinking skills. 

Prospective physics majors can contact schools to learn more about the admission requirements, time commitment, and cost of earning a degree in physics.

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